Plunder and power

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

Joseph Estrada continues to claim attention behind bars, while President Arroyo seeks to undo the impression that she has overplayed her hand by being vindictive against her predecessor in office.

THE former President of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada, may be in jail, but he still commands mass support. By treating him as a common criminal following his arrest on charges of economic plunder on April 25, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo unwittingly generated a show of support for her ousted predecessor. For six straight days after the arrest, his supporters gathered at the EDSA shrine in Manila - the site of two earlier people's assemblies that led to the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in 1985 and Estrada himself in January 2001.

By all accounts, Estrada's supporters were poor as opposed to the mobile phone-wielding, text-message sending protesters who came out in droves in January to drive the President out of office.

While 'class' politics and analysis seems to have become a less popular tool of analysis in these days of globalisation, the recent demonstrations and clashes in Manila show its relevance.

The occupation of the EDSA shrine by Estrada's supporters was symbolic. They were sending a simple message - if you can do it, so can we. One man's mob is as good as another.

At the time of Estrada's ouster, disturbing questions were raised about how he was forced to leave the Malacanang presidential palace under pressure. The events of April-May have once again demonstrated the relevance of these disturbing questions. The inability of the democratic process to use legal means to oust Estrada has continued to haunt the Philippines.

For those who ousted Estrada, protests represented the correct vehicle to use since the then President was using his cronies in the Senate to sabotage the impeachment process against him. However, it is difficult not to accord the same status to Estrada loyalists as well. If military men had come to join the ousted President's supporters, it would have been considered a 'coup', an 'act of rebellion', since Arroyo's is the legally-established government.

There is little doubt that the courts too played a dubious role in declaring the job of President 'vacant' in January and then quickly going on to have Arroyo sworn in as if there was no tomorrow.

Patience, howsoever difficult a trait to develop, can be a great virtue when it comes to building a democratic nation. The Philippines is suffering the consequences of the haste shown in dumping Estrada and allowing his one-time deputy to take over the top job. "At the very root of the crisis is the supra-constitutional manner by which she (Arroyo) was installed. After the impeachment trial in the Senate failed, the nation's Supreme Court ruled that the presidency was vacant due to Mr. Estrada's alleged incapacity to govern because of corruption. The dubiousness of this procedure continues to haunt the government," The Asian Wall Street Journal said in an editorial. Referring to the march on the presidential palace on May 1 by pro-Estrada supporters and the clashes with security forces in which at least three persons were killed and over 100 injured, the newspaper said the catalyst for the uprising was Estrada's arrest on April 25. "Mr. Estrada, known as Erap, still has a following that views his removal from office and prosecution as a railroading of one of their own by elites. This despite the fact that he seemed more interested in lining his own pockets than in improving opportunities for the poor while he was in power. Particularly upsetting to his loyalists is how Mr. Estrada was treated as a common criminal, with his mugshots humiliatingly printed in all of the local newspapers. "It is very important to gauge this sentiment. According to sources in Manila, public opinion - even among some of those who wanted Erap deposed - is turning sympathetic to the former President, who is charged with stealing of otherwise illegally acquiring over $80 million during his 31 months in office. Despite popular acknowledgement that Mr. Estrada is more likely guilty, the thinking is that Mrs. Arroyo has overplayed her hand by being vindictive," the newspaper added.

THE President has declared a 'state of rebellion', only two steps short of imposing martial law, and declared that pro-Estrada forces were conspiring to put in place a 'junta' in the country after deposing her. Arroyo has engaged in tough talk - describing the poor protesters as 'drug-crazed youths' - reflecting once again a lack of sensitivity that comes from privilege and arrogance.

Speaking a day before the May 1 violence, Arroyo said her government was in "absolute control of the situation". "Last night there was to be a power grab, but it fizzled out... I was hoping they would act so I could crush them," she said, adding that this was not the first attempt at conspiracy to bring her government down. "If one steps beyond the limit of conduct, government will have no recourse but (to) take all measures necessary to safeguard the public. The government has been given formidable defence measures that can be readily relied upon," she said.

The details of the power grab remain vague, but after the attempt to storm the presidential palace, a key Estrada man, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, was arrested while the police were looking for other key associates of the former President.

Speaking after the May 1 violence, Arroyo said: "I have no intention of declaring martial law. I hope they will not provoke me, those in the Opposition, into doing that." On May 1 itself, the Arroyo government had declared a state of rebellion in the country.

In an editorial comment, Singapore's Straits Times said: "Backed by the military and the Catholic Church, Mrs. Arroyo is well-placed to deal with the trouble-makers. But she has the May 14 local government and congressional elections to worry about. Mr. Estrada's arrest could work against the candidates she supports. Battling misconceptions about the former President is Mrs. Arroyo's problem."

On Estrada's trial, the editorial added: "They (prosecutors) must prove his guilt beyond any shadow of doubt. Whatever the outcome of the case, Mr. Estrada must be treated fairly and squarely if justice is to be served. However distorted, his mythical persona is real for the poor in the Philippines. This makes it all the more important for Mrs. Arroyo to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done."

AFTER all the criticism that has been levelled against her, Arroyo seems to have done a volte-face on the handling of Estrada himself. For one who had his mugshots taken as an ordinary criminal and put in a bare cell, Estrada's conditions of detention suddenly evoked a 'humanitarian' response in Arroyo.

On May 3, Arroyo went to visit Estrada and even shook hands with her ex-boss who is now facing the charge of economic plunder which carries the death penalty. In a surprise visit, the President announced two concessions for Estrada - curtains and longer visiting hours. "She was a bit elated that former President Estrada used the term 'our President'," Arroyo's spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said after their meeting.

When Estrada brought up his request to be placed under house arrest, the President told him that his request was already under consideration in Sandiganbayan (a special anti-corruption court).

"I'm here to ensure that (former) President Estrada is very much comfortable because it is in accordance with his position and service to our nation," Arroyo was quoted as saying after the meeting.

On May 4, Arroyo took her diplomatic approach further when she spoke to members of the impoverished mob who had tried to storm her home. "I'm proud of the fact that my grandmother is in fact a laundrywoman... My father (late former President Diosado Macapagal) came from a family of poor farm workers and my grandmother had to wash clothes for their neighbours for extra money," she told the under-detention rioters. Sitting before a male detainee, she said: "Let us not fight... You say you heard your leaders say that the Constitution must be defended. Well, the Supreme Court has already ruled that under the Constitution I am the President. So if you are for the Constitution we must be on the same side."

Clearly, the President has been advised that it is not good politics to describe poor protesters as 'drug-crazed youths', especially when elections are due on May 14. So in an amazing U-turn, Arroyo has found her plebian roots and has been proclaiming them for all to see. She even found time to speak directly to one of the unwashed millions who demonstrated against her.

However, observers point out that if Arroyo is serious about her commitment to the poor and not just making rhetorical statements, then that must be demonstrated through solid programmes for the poor.

Estrada, the mode of his arrest and the vindictive actions by the Arroyo administration will all be issues in the elections. His film persona, that of a pro-poor hero, seems to have got a little mixed up with real life. There is little doubt that Arroyo and her government have been startled by the virulence of the response from Estrada's supporters. They have been taken aback by the mass support that he has generated.

In the days and months to come, along with Estrada Arroyo and her government will also be on trial. Their conduct, their every move relating to the fairness of Estrada's treatment, will be up for public scrutiny. Will Arroyo and her team be able to pass that test?

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